Small claims courts exclusively hear civil cases that involve small sums of money. While the laws regarding small claims court vary from state to state, the total value of a claim must be below a specific dollar amount.
When you file a dispute against a party in small claims court, that party must be notified of the claims against them. The defendant is required to be served with a court summons and a copy of the complaint against them. This is known as service of process.
How can you serve a small claims case? Read on to learn more about service of process in small claims court.
Suing in Small Claims Court Multiple Times
You can sue the same party more than once in small claims court, but each complaint must involve a specific, separate legal claim. This is known as a cause of action. Examples of cause of action include:
- Breach of contract
- Personal injury
While you can sue someone multiple times in small claims court, you can't sue someone repeatedly for the same cause of action. However, you may be entitled to include anticipated future damages in your claim.
How to File Small Claims: Variations by State
- Alabama - $3,000 or less. File a case with the Small Claims Division of the District Court. You must request the sum from the defendant before filing.
- Alaska - Up to $10,000. Claims can be filed at the district court where the defendant lives or works or in the district where the incident you are suing over occurred.
- Arizona - $3,500 or less. Claims must be filed in the justice court district where the defendant lives. (3)
- Arkansas - Less than $5,000. You can file a claim in the county where the incident in the claim took place or in the county where the defendant lives.
- California - No more than $10,000. You must ask the defendant for payment before going to court. Your claim should be filed in the county where the defendant lives or does business.
- Colorado - Up to $7,500
- Connecticut - $5,000 or less
- Delaware - Up to $25,000
- Florida - $8,000 or less
- Georgia - $15,000 or less
- Hawaii - Up to $5,000
- Idaho - Up to $5,000
- Illinois - $10,000 or less
- Indiana - Up to $10,000
- Iowa - Up to $6,500
- Kansas - $4,500 or less
- Kentucky - No more than $2,500
- Louisiana - Up to $5,000
- Maine - $6,000 or less
- Maryland - $5,000 or less
- Massachusetts - Up to $7,000
- Michigan - $6,500 or less
- Minnesota - $15,000 or less
- Mississippi - Up to $3,500
- Missouri - Up to $5,000
- Montana - No more than $3,900
- Nebraska - Up to $10,000
- Nevada - Up to $10,000
- New Hampshire - Up to $10,000
- New Jersey - No more than $3,000
- New Mexico - Up to $10,000
- New York - Up to $10,000
- North Carolina - No more than $5,000-$10,000
- North Dakota - Up to $15,000
- Ohio - No more than $6,000
- Oklahoma - Up to $10,000
- Oregon - Up to $10,000
- Pennsylvania - Up to $12,000
- Rhode Island - No more than $2,500
- South Carolina - $7,500 or less
- South Dakota - $12,000 or less
- Tennessee - Up to $25,000
- Texas - Up to $20,000
- Utah - No more than $11,000
- Vermont - Up to $5,000
- Virginia - Up to $5,000
- Washington - No more than $10,000
- West Virginia - Up to $10,000
- Wisconsin - Up to $10,000
- Wyoming - No more than $6,000
How to Serve a Small Claims Case
All parties on your claim must be served. While serving someone with papers can be difficult, there are several ways to serve a small claims case.
Most states allow you to serve a case through certified mail. Certified mail is a delivery service in which someone is asked to provide a signature confirming mail delivery. However, if the defendant refuses to sign for their mail, you may have to explore other options.
A handful of states allow defendants to be served through first-class mail. However, if the defendant fails to respond to your claim in time, you may need to take additional action. The process for this varies from state to state.
With this type of service, an individual is personally served with paperwork for the case. However, you can't just hand someone papers yourself. The documents must be served by someone that doesn't know the defendant.
In most states, papers can be served by law officers or by a private process server. If you have to pay to hire a private process server, you may be able to add these costs to the value of your claim.
Because some people try to avoid being served, some states allow for substituted service. If reasonable means to serve the defendant personally fail, the claim can simply be left at the defendant's address. In most cases, papers are secured to the defendant's door.
How to Serve Court Papers Yourself
You can't serve a defendant in your claim personally. However, most states allow you to help someone yourself through First-Class mail. Hiring a process server to deliver your claim is also an option.
Some states allow a claim to be served by a "disinterested adult." This can be anyone over the age of 18 that is not a part of the claim. However, many states require that this person receives approval from the court before the claim is delivered.
How to File a Proof of Service in Small Claims Court
The court must be notified when a defendant in your claim is successfully served. If you have asked a court clerk to serve the defendant through certified mail, they will automatically receive a receipt upon delivery. However, if you choose to serve the defendant via certified mail or serve the defendant through other means, you will have to notify the court of Proof of Service yourself.
This can be done by filing a Proof of Service form with a court clerk. If the defendant is served through personal service, this form must be signed by the individual serving the defendant.
How to Get a Small Claims Case Dismissed
A small claims case can be terminated before the case goes to trial or is completed. This is known as dismissal. The court's decision to terminate,or do so sua sponte.)). You can request withdrawal of a claim you filed or request that a claim be dismissed against you.
The dismissal process varies by state, but you'll typically be required to file a request for dismissal with the court. If a case is dismissed, filing fees will not be refunded.
How to Postpone a Small Claims Case
If you need to postpone or reschedule the court date for your case, you can request a continuance. This must be done in advance of the court date. It's at the court's discretion to decide whether a continuance should be granted.
It's best to contact your county's small claims court to find out the process for requesting a continuance. The earlier you make your request, the more likely it is that the request will be granted.
How to Find a Defendant’s Address
If you don't know the defendant's address you are filing a claim against, you will need to find their address to serve your claim. You can find an address by:
- Searching for their address online
- Paying for a person search
- Check property records
- Mailing a letter to their last known address with "Return Service Requested. Do Not Forward." If the letter cannot be delivered to their last known address, it will be returned to you with their new address
How to Serve a Defendant Without an Address
If a defendant does not have an address, or if you are unable to locate their address, you can potentially have them served at another address. In many cases, defendants are served at their place of employment. A process server may also look for a defendant in other locations, such as their gym.
How to Serve a Corporation
If you're filing a claim against a corporation, the claim must be served to an officer within the company. The claim can be delivered to the business address through personal service or through certified mail. It should be addressed to the appropriate person or the business's registered agent when sending certified mail.